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Braille’s Place in the Age of Technology

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A quick assumption would be that the utilization of braille has decreased in recent years, either due to advancements in technology or the rise of the audiobook industry. However, braille has since evolved from solely embossed paper to its incorporation in accessible technology.

Evolved from its original use as a means of low-light wartime communication, braille has been used as a tactile reading and writing system for over a century for those who are visually impaired. It is a system of code that allows for reading and writing without the use of sight, consisting of embossed braille cells —  each resembling a two by three grid — that represent individual letters, numbers and symbols. So, how has braille survived in the era of screen readers and smart devices?

According to the National Science Teaching Association, visual impairments affect each member of the disabled community uniquely. Someone who is blind or has low vision might use braille as a means of reading and writing, in addition to using smart devices that can read aloud to them. 

The National Science Teaching Association maintains that every person is unique in their personal accessibility. For example, someone who has a visual impairment and impaired mobility might not have the ability to detect braille cells through their fingers and will not find braille accessible. On the other hand, someone who has both visual and hearing impairments might find braille to be their preferred mode of reading and writing as they are not able to hear screen readers or electronic personal assistants.

Karen Arcos, a UCI alumna who received accommodations from the Disability Services Center (DSC), mentioned having used braille daily to complete her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience with an emphasis in Chicano/Latino Studies as someone who is totally blind. Arcos said she used braille in all aspects of her education at UCI, including meeting presentations, collecting and analyzing data, daily emails and drafting her dissertation.

“Braille on paper is especially useful when creating or interpreting tactile charts, tables and graphs. Reading braille digitally comes in handy for pleasure, like texting and when revising papers. I also enjoy writing braille, especially when thinking deeply or editing text,” Arcos said.

Personal preferences for the use of assistive technology ultimately complement braille reader’s individual accessibility. In the end, each person must decide for themselves which tools increase their personal access. 

DSC Assistive Technology Manager Somphone Eno explained that there are many factors that determine someone’s preference to consume braille in a physical or digital mode.

“One page of text can turn into three pages of braille. You can have volumes and volumes of braille paper that just represents one book, for example. Some people might prefer to have the hard copy and some people might like the refreshable braille from some applications. Or in some cases, [refreshable braille displays] could be devices that are smaller and make information more portable,” Eno said.

It’s possible to say that the preference of braille in hard copy over screen readers is similar to that of physical print books over audiobooks or e-books. There is a specific occasion for each.

Among the recent advancements to increase accessibility, refreshable braille displays have become more accessible since their invention in the 1980s. 

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “Braille displays provide access to information on a computer screen by electronically raising and lowering different combinations of pins in braille cells … [where] it changes continuously as the user moves the cursor around on the screen.” 

“A lot of people may be using their computer with a screen reader and they’re able to function everything fine, but they may prefer also having a braille display. Even though it’s [more advanced] technology, it is still braille,” Eno said.

Braille, both on paper and on refreshable displays, retains its importance because audiobooks and screen readers were created to expand the accessibility of those who are low vision or blind — not to replace the reliable means of tactile communication that braille has proven itself to be. 

Eno said that braille remains the clearest depiction of text available for those who are low vision or blind, stating that, “When you’re listening to information, you don’t really know the intricacies of the information, you just know the content.” 

While listening to a piece of text read aloud, some aspects of the text may be lost. For example, the tone of sentences is expressed grammatically with punctuation, such as an exclamation point or question mark. Electronic personal assistants, like Siri or Alexa, try their best to mimic human intonations; however, precise meaning is lost in solely auditory communication. 

“Braille gives blind individuals a way of knowing aspects like spelling and spatially orienting while writing. As well as reviewing and creating details that are harder to maintain through hearing, like computer code,” Arcos said.   

Additionally, braille allows for the reader to see the words spelled out before them, understand the punctuation present in the passage and perhaps be a child’s first introduction to written grammar.

Arcos said that increasing braille literacy among those who are low vision or blind is important. 

“The over 70% unemployment rate among the blind in the U.S. is already too high, in my opinion; learning and being comfortable with braille is a key first step to lowering this trend,” Arcos said. 

Advancements in accessible technology have led braille to be fully incorporated into the digital age, as indispensable to accessible consumption like screen readers and electronic personal assistants.

Shakira Noriega is a STEM Contributing Writer for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at sanorieg@uci.edu